I’m Erin McKennah – Ritter, mom of 2 kids, 13 and 9, born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia and I am still here. I am approaching the end of my graduate program and – fingers crossed – I will be a licensed clinical mental health counselor soon!

Becoming Fully Affirming

Someone being LGBTQIA+ was never something that was an issue while I was growing up. I had friends who were gay and that was that – not an issue. It wasn’t until I found faith that I began to judge and doubt my acceptance of the communities. I tried to justify my beliefs towards my LGBTQIA+ friends by comparing their sex before marriage to heterosexual sex before marriage, in that it was all a sin – I don’t believe that anymore.

A few years ago, when the evangelical church began to use bible verses to harm immigrants, I began to question my faith. I have since left the church and consider myself an evangelical, and now fully affirm my LGBTQIA+ friends and family and I am still questioning my faith. I started to become active and more outspoken about my support for the LGBTQIA+ communities when I started grad school about three years ago. I plan to serve the communities as a mental health therapist once I graduate.

Joining the Free Mom Hugs Family

I first heard about Free Mom Hugs when Jen Hatmaker posted about her experience at a pride event and how hugging people and coming home covered in glitter filled her with so much joy. I reached out to Free Mom Hugs national to inquire about volunteer opportunities in my state, but we didn’t have state chapters at that time. About 9 months later I discovered Free Mom Hugs – Georgia and got involved at the state level.

I was new to leadership when someone posted in our leader’s online group that they had an extra ticket and bed for the Wild Goose Festival. 2019 was my year of yeses so I jumped at the opportunity to go to North Carolina in July to meet some fellow Free Mom Huggers. Little did I know that I would be bunking up with Sara Cunningham, Liz Dyer, Robin Parker, and Heather Robinson!

Sara, Heather, me, Liz, and Robin

At the end of our weekend, Heather claimed out loud that we would be asked to join the board and when applications were being accepted that fall I applied – never imagining that I would be asked to join. Not only did I get asked to join the board, but I also have the pleasure of leading the Chapter Committee which means that I get to walk alongside all of our state leaders. We would love to have you join us and all of our amazing volunteers in our state chapters.

Secret Proposal

In October 2019, our state chapter had the privilege of helping plan a surprise engagement at Atlanta Pride. While being a part of Free Mom Hugs brings me joy daily, this was a mountain top experience.

A young woman reached out to us to ask if we could help her propose to her girlfriend. We said yes immediately and so began our plan. One of the coolest things about this is that I went to high school with the mom of the woman who proposed! You can watch the exciting proposal here.

Jennifer O’Rourke, Adrienne Levesque (mama of the bride), me, Kelli Blundell (Georgia Chapter Leader), Sara, Andenia Pressley. Photography by Katie Pitts at KP Photography. 
Becky Kanouff and Alicia Nicole – Tha Happy Couple
Adrienne Levesque(mom of the bride), Sara Cunningham, Erin Ritter

Tell us something unique about yourself:

When I was in my 20’s I went to court to legally change my last name to a name that I made up with the help of my maternal grandfather, McKennah is that name ☺.

Guest blogger Cristina Spencer is an author, activist and certified Life Coach. She is a lifelong advocate for gender equality and recently appeared on our Free Mom Hugs Virtual Tour. Cristina joined Sara Cunningham and Kimberly Shappley on one of our most successful panels regarding parents of transgender children.

For years before she wrote to her employers to inform them that she was transgender, Aimee Stephens lived two separate lives. During the day, she dressed as a man and served grieving families as a funeral director. At home she dressed in alignment with her identity as a woman, a transgender woman. She wrote to her employers in July 2013 after surviving years of despair to inform them she could no longer endure the agony of appearing in the world as someone she was not. She had no idea this one simple action would be her first step toward transforming the rights of transgender Americans across the country.

I first became aware of Aimee Stephens in April of 2019 when my son had just turned thirteen and was one year away from taking his first testosterone shot.  As a transgender boy his life had been relatively easy. He had a family that loved and supported him. He had access to gender affirming medical care. He did well in school and had a wide circle of friends who piled into our basement to eat chips and watch the New England Patriots crush the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl the previous January. In a time when 75% of trans kids report feeling unsafe at school, our family understands that our son is lucky.

Transgender Rights are Human Rights

But by April of 2019, public life was feeling increasingly uncertain for us. The rapid and aggressive erosion of my son’s rights under the Trump administration was undeniable. In February 2017, one of the first actions his administration took was to revoke legal guidance that protected trans students’ right to use the appropriate bathroom at school. In March,  protections for trans, homeless people seeking refuge in emergency shelters was withdrawn. And in July, qualified transgender people were banned from serving in the American military. Shortly before the Supreme Court announced in April 2019 that they would hear Aimee Stephens’ case, Roger Severino, Director of the Office of Civil Rights in the Federal Health And Human Services Department, announced plans to roll back protections guaranteeing transgender individuals health care coverage in the ACA while also expanding the religious rights of healthcare organizations to deny care to transgender people.

A Visit to the Supreme Court

Our new reality forced me to contact my son’s school to insist that if he ever needed emergency medical attention he was not to be taken to the hospital closest to the school, which was affiliated with a Catholic healthcare company, but instead to a secular hospital 2 miles farther away. This was something I never imagined I’d need to do in my lifetime. So when I learned that the Supreme Court was going to hear Aimee Stephens case, I knew I had to go see for myself how the highest court in the land was going to shape my son’s future.

The Supreme Court of The United States of America

Fifty members of the general public are admitted to the Supreme Court everyday (when we are not in a pandemic!) to hear the day’s oral arguments. The line outside the court began to form two days before the case would be heard. The orange slip of paper I received from the court officer the morning of October 8th informed me that I would be the 40th member of the general public admitted to the court.

I was struck by how human the experience felt against the epic backdrop of the Supreme Court. My paper ticket, Justice Sotomayor’s travel coffee mug up on the bench, RBG’s chunky red necklace, Gorsuch’s huge yawn and oversized mug. The way all of us who cued our way through the courthouse’s security check points became a society of sorts.

October 8, 2019

The hearing was anxiety provoking. The progressive side of the argument for once has a very simple straightforward logic–if you fire someone for being gay, you are firing them for failing to meet a stereotypical expectation about who men or women should love (same logic applies to gender identity–if you fire someone for being trans, you are firing them for being the “wrong kind of man or woman”). On the conservative side, the argument was that sexual orientation and gender identity were never intended to be a part of the 1964 Civil rights act (but nor was sexual harassment or inter racial marriage…other topics that the court has already interpreted to be covered by the law). Overall, the morning did not seem hopeful. Even Aimee Stephen’s lead counsel, from the ACLU, when I had a brief chance to meet him, told me he did not expect to win.

There’s Always Hope

One ray of hope I did take away that day was that everyone there that day got along. I had a conversation with four homeschooled high school students who were attending court because they believed that “god made people male and female.” The facts they had about trans people were completely contrary to mine and they had never spent time with any trans people. And yet I felt oddly maternal toward them (when we were rushed for time to stash our stuff in lockers before going into the courtroom one of them ended up putting her stuff in my locker). She thanked me for my help. Her friends thanked me for being civil with them, which told me they expected liberals like me to behave otherwise. I imagined these kids meeting my own son. I could see them all getting along just fine. I could envision a future in which meeting my son actually changed how they felt about trans people. And so even though winning seemed like a long shot that day, I left with the idea that person-to-person communities tended to find a way to get along, and that if I focused on participating in a person-to-person network that supported the trans community, my son’s would be able to travel to different states, work where he wanted to work, and find doctors who would care for him. I set an intention leaving the court that day to join a person-to-person network that supported the trans community. I did not know what that meant exactly, but I made a request to the universe to connect me to such a group.

Finding Free Mom Hugs

Gender Sensitivity Training with Dr. Lindsey Churchill and Free Mom Hugs

Whether it was supernatural or just the algorithm at Facebook, I stumbled across Sara Cunningham and Free Mom Hugs in my social media feed the following week. Sara’s mission matched my prayer precisely. A few weeks later I made a donation online, and lo and behold, can you imagine, my phone rang. And it was Sara. Free Mom Hugs has been a part of my life since then. It is the person-to-person network I envisioned. I have since met incredible physicians who support trans kids, moms across the country raising trans kids, mom advocates who are fighting and winning legal battles at the state level. There is a sense that we are all in this together. And more important, since Free Mom Hugs has chapters in each of our fifty states, I know that my son has a safe network that he can rely on in the future.

Flying to OKC to meet Sara Cunningham

SCOTUS Victory June 15, 2020

As many of you probably know, Aimee Stephens won her case in the Supreme Court, but did not live to see her day of victory. Because of her authenticity, her bravery, and her willingness to let her story serve others, trans kids across the nation can grow up knowing they can’t be fired from a job for who they are. The fact that Aimee Stephens did not live to see this day is sad, of course, but is a lesson to all of us that justice for the LGBTQ+ community is a long, up and down road. It is right to work toward future victories, but more important than letting one victory or another change how we feel about the future, we can know there is power in joining a robust community of care and commitment like Free Mom Hugs. We can be there for each other and for each other’s families on the good days and the bad, we can encourage one another to continue the work, we can connect each other to the critical information we need to find work or healthcare or shelter. Together we can make sure Aimee Stephens’ victory in court becomes a victory in the day-to-day lives of the LGBTQ+ community.

I am Jan Pezant and I serve as secretary on the board of directors for Free Mom Hugs Inc. I met Sara Cunningham in June 2016 when a mutual friend asked me if I wanted to go to Oklahoma City Pride to hug with a group of moms of LGBTQIA+ kids. It was the first year that Free Mom Hugs had a booth and walked in the parade. That day changed my life!

Jan and David Pezant with Free Mom Hugs founder Sara Cunningham

Our son came out to my husband and I in 2009 at 16 years of age as gay. We were not surprised and had had many conversations about how we were going to respond once that day came. We had done some study, conversations with clergy we trusted, and lots of soul searching and prayer before his coming out, so we were completely affirming and supportive of him. We have always had a very close relationship with our son, always mindful of not just showing him, but also telling him often that we love him. Maybe it is because we had suspected since he was quite young that he was gay and we wanted to make sure he knew he was safe with us. The night he told us he was gay; those were not the hardest words to hear. The hardest to hear were; “I have a bag packed and a place to go if I’m not allowed to live here anymore.” As much as we had done to express our love and acceptance of him, he still felt he had to be prepared to be rejected and forced to leave his home. Too many kids grow up living or hearing the stories of others of rejection from family and friends that they either never come out, put off coming out, or prepare and expect to be discarded. Slowly he began to open himself up and share with family and friends. Overall, family was loving and accepting. His youth group at church along with youth ministers were wonderful. As he says, he is one of the lucky ones. People shouldn’t have to feel “lucky” to be loved and celebrated by their family and friends if they are LGBTQIA+. This has to stop!

I jumped in heart first, with the rest of me right there too, getting as involved in this new group of LGBTQIA+ moms as I could. My husband and son were very supportive and loved to see me so happy and fulfilled. Garrett, my son, was very proud and happy that I was giving my heart and time to the community and being a mom to others who didn’t have a bio mom to love and celebrate them as he did. My husband, David, also became involved always ready to give a hug.

Edmond Pride 2019

When a board of directors was being established, I was honored to be asked to join first serving as vice president and then as secretary. The organization was growing and then “the post” on Facebook about Sara offering to be a Stand-In mom at weddings happened and it catapulted the organization into a whole new level. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/01/04/this-woman-offered-be-mom-any-gay-wedding-her-post-went-viral/ People from all over the country and the world were asking how they could get involved. We took a big leap forward and decided we needed to do our best to start chapters around the country. I was asked to lead this initiative, but it was a whole board project with everyone helping to make it happen and be successful. It makes me so proud and warms my heart to see pictures and hear stories from people all over the country representing Free Mom Hugs and making a difference. Knowing that those huggers and those being hugged are changing, growing, and feeling unconditional love makes me so happy. And to know I have had a small part of that is truly wonderful.

As I have become more involved with Free Mom Hugs, met more people of the LGBTQIA+ community, and taken steps to become educated I realize how much I didn’t know and how small my life was. I know how important education is. Seeking out training through diversity centers, reading books, articles, and blogs from reputable sources, surrounding yourself with knowledgeable people, joining organizations that are doing good work to bring about good change, and using the education you are gaining to educate others is important. Maybe most importantly, voting at local, state, and national levels to bring about positive change for all.

The year 2020 has been difficult in many ways, but also eye opening for many, myself included. It has been hard to be active in an organization that gives hugs and not be able to go to events and give hugs. It has been hard to not socialize in person with family and friends. Worry and anxiety about the health of family, friends, and myself has been at the forefront of my thoughts. What I believe has been a positive is the opportunity to slow down and focus on what and who is important in my life. I readily admit I live a life filled with privilege. How I use that privilege to lift others and their voices is important. I am trying to educate myself in how to do that. A quote from Nelson Mandela has been in my thoughts, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” It is my call and the call of others that live in privilege to help this country move forward in respecting and enhancing the freedoms for people of color, LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups.

I look forward to seeing the changes and growth of Free Mom Hugs and how we can be a positive force in the change and growth of others. I look forward to the time when we can gather safely and hug again in person. I look forward to spreading love and acceptance to all and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.

Caravan Pride Parade Oklahoma City 2020